Star Trek – The Best and the Worst of All Worlds

So I’m a Trekkie. So shoot me (but only with a phaser set to stun). Therefore I’m predisposed to like the shows, and think the best of them. However, I’m fully prepared to accept that some people (some poor, misguided people) don’t like the stuff.

There’s much I could say about the different incarnations, but here’s why I think they worked (and why in some cases they didn’t):

Star Trek: The Original Series – A space-faring three-way tie?

Star Trek was the brainchild of Gene Roddenberry, and first saw the dim, flickering light of television screens back in 1966. What we now refer to as The Original Series brought Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Scotty and the rest onto our screens, and a raft of alien races and cultures came with them. TOS lasted for three series, and after an abortive attempt to relaunch the show failed, the cast went on to make six movies.

So why IS the old Star Trek so endearing? The premise is pretty simple – it was envisioned by Roddenberry as a “Wagon Train to the Stars”, a frontier western, but set in space. And to be fair, that’s pretty much all it ever was. The bandits and rustlers became Romulans and Klingons, but the story was the same. I’d argue that it was the characters, and the different alien races, that made the show so successful and endearing – more popular than ever these days, even after forty-six years. For me, there’s a simple reason why:

The Kirk / Spock / McCoy Triangle

One thing that always confused me about the early Star Trek shows is how, whenever there was the need to go to a planet and do something obviously dangerous, the three most vital people always went – the Captain, the First Officer, and the Doctor. Sure, they also took some random security guy in a red jersey, knowing that he was the one that would get killed and they would therefore be perfectly safe.  However, it was clear that these three could only really function in some kind of futuristic, non-sexual love-triangle. Kirk needed his two comrades to warn him of the danger / lack of logic in his intentions, then to form an appreciative audience when he managed to survive. Spock needed the passion and exuberance of his fellow officers (one physical, the other emotional) to counterbalance his cold, pure logic. And McCoy needed the others to rail against like Victor Meldrew needed the bloke next door. All three had their strengths, all three had their weaknesses. But they only became real when thrown into dramatic relief against the other two.

Star Trek: The Next Generation (a.k.a Star Trek 2: Electric Boogaloo)

TNG was Boss, to use the street vernacular. A cool ship, some great new characters, and (after the first series at least) some real action and non-flimsy sets.

They had an older, more thoughtful  captain and a dynamic First Officer,  but then they went a little too far and ended up with a futuristic vision of the prefect post-nuclear family. You had the sensible, controlled-emotion  Captain Picard, and his loose-cannon No 1, Will Riker, who seemed to settle into his role whenever the producers allowed him to grow a beard. Then you had Worf – the softest, least aggressive and calmest Klingon in the known galaxy. There was Geordi LaForge – migrating from helmsman to Chief Engineer somehow – I certainly never saw him get any additional qualifications. Maybe he got the gig because they realised it wasn’t a good idea to have the blind guy driving. You had Beverley Crusher – ruddy-haired Doctor and on-off romantic liaison with the Captain. And her son, the frankly utterly annoying Wesley. Who they let drive the starship, even though he wasn’t old enough to ride a moped. Then there was Deanna Troi – the ships counsellor. She was an Empath, which basically was the most useless form of telepathy going. She would make someone mad, and she could tell they were mad. But she’d have no idea why

Now I liked Picard, because Patrick Stewart is a damn fine actor and an Englishman, but there were two other characters that really caught my eye.

Lt. Commander Data was an Android. More accurately, for those that know their sci-fi, he was a positronic robot, as envisioned by Isaac Asimov many years before. And the series made references to the three Laws of Robotics often. For a robot, Data often exhibited more humanity than the rest of the crew, and served as a neat little counterpoint to the rest.

Then there’s my favourite: Lt. Reginald Barclay. Barclay is you or me. He was clever, but clumsy. He was eager, but inept. He would come up with the most brilliant solutions to problems, but be too scared to speak out. And, like us all, he crapped himself whenever he needed to step onto the transporter pad.  That sounds like the sort of Starfleet officer I’d be.

Deep Space Nine: Boldly going…. nowhere

DS9 changed the game. Suddenly the idea of a frontier western found a home on a real frontier outpost – a space station out in deep space, far from the reaches of Starfleet Headquarters, but highly militarised due to its recent occupation by those dastardly Cardassians.

I have mixed emotions about DS9. Some of the characters are great. I love the concept of the symbiotic Dax, and the shape-shifting Odo. And whilst they may not always have been written well, or given the right opportunities, by and large they worked. Some characters didn’t work so well, sadly the biggest culprit was Ben Sisko, probably the wettest lead character the series had. The Commander of DS9 was played with all the fire and intensity of Uncle Remus in Song of the South.

We had a Ferengi running the bar, we had all manner of aliens and humans, we had Cardassians and the Dominion as the baddies, we had the Bajoran Resistance – and yet for me, it didn’t feel right. The stories were strong, they had cood characterisation, but it could have been anywhere. It didn’t have the classic Star Trek vibe.

Star Trek Voyager: Please State The Nature of The Spatial Anomaly.

Voyager marked two events at its birth: The return to a travelling, space-faring storyline, and the end of TNG. Seven years after Star Trek had returned to our screens, we were in for something new. And boy, did we get it.

Voyager’s mission to capture renegade Maquis fighters is interrupted when the star ship, and the Maquis vessel, is hurled 70,000 light years across the galaxy to the Delta Quadrant.  The creature that did this ends up being destroyed, and they now have a journey back home – but at only a thousand light years every year, it’ll take then seventy years to get home. Don’t bother doing the math – I’m pretty sure as well that there are numerous instances of a star ship at high warp travelling more than three light years in a day…

Cue loads of new races, loads of new enemies, and nothing but the resources of the ship and it’s half-Starfleet, half-Maquis crew to rely on.

Where Voyager wins for me isn’t just the reliance on the resources they have, and it’s not just the new locations and the always-present goal of finding a short-cut back to Earth. It’s the Characters as well.

They broke with tradition and gave the top job to a woman. Janeway is strong, feisty, and decisive – and also caring and vulnerable. There’s more than just a bit of Kirk in her make-up, which is good to see.

B’Elanna Torres was an interesting half-human, half-Klingon paradox. On one occasion, she was separated into her two genetic halves, and the stronger, more aggressive Klingon female and her weaker, more intuitive and less impulsive human counterpart learned to trust each other and succeed.

Other characters, like Tom Paris and Tuvok, work well because they are not just one-dimensional. Others, like Chakotay, Harry Kim, and Neelix, fail to work well often, simply because they ARE one-dimensional. The best, though, has a mirror in previous incarnations.

Just as Data and Barclay showed that an artificial life form and an officer uncomfortable with the responsibility can work separately, the Doctor is a superb amalgam of these two traits, played by the brilliant Bob Picardo. He’s a very good character actor, and his portrayal of the holographic medic always signals an upturn in the shows.

And just as the Kirk/Spock/McCoy team needed each other, the Doctor really came ‘alive’ when playing opposite a good foil, and on Voyager there were two. In seasons 1-3, there was Kes, an Ocampan whose gentle, enquiring nature led her to draw the Doctor out of his original program parameters and grow into a far more rounded person. At the start of Season 4, Kes left, but was ‘replaced’ by the former Borg drone Seven of Nine. Now the Doctor became the master, teaching Seven how to function as an individual, as a part of a non-connected crew, and how to grow. Both Jennifer Lien as Kes, and Jeri Ryan as Seven, brought the Doctor’s character to the fore and allowed him to shine.

Star Trek: Enterprise. The Pre-Incarnation

Enterprise was a step back in time to when space travel, and Starfleet, was new and untested. And whilst it didn’t really catch the imagination enough to rank alongside the other series for most people, it’s worth noting at the outset that it managed to outlast TOS for number of episodes.

The technology was new, the outfits were basic and functional, nobody trusted the transporter, and everything was new and surprising. It was a bit like watching sheep travelling through the cosmos. Except….

This was an attempt to return to old values. The ships looked like they were bolted together, the instrument panels had switches, dials and proper buttons, and the crew distrusted everyone. And as a Star Trek series, it was no longer what we were used to. And so despite the good cast (including Scott Bakula as Captain Archer) the series was pretty much panned by the critics. It had a dodgy power-ballad as a theme tune, which didn’t help.

The writers, actors, and designers tried their best. The direction was good, the intent honourable. But somehow, because it was so different, it just wasn’t the Star Trek we all wanted to see. And so it stopped after four seasons (for reference, TOS did three, and TNG, DS9 and Voyager seven each).

Where do we go from here? Will we see a Star Trek back on the small screen? I hope so. And as long as they keep it recognisable as well as innovative, as long as they write good characters and cast good actors, and as long as they let them get on with the job at hand, it’ll be as successful as its predecessors…

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2 thoughts on “Star Trek – The Best and the Worst of All Worlds

  1. Mario Speedwagon says:

    Excellent article. I agree that DS9 have a totally different vibe to TNG and even Voyager, but after the rose coloured glasses optimism of TNG, I found DS9 really refreshing. In DS9, you couldn’t always be sure the major characters were always going to come home safe – the murder of Jadzia Dax is the perfect example of this. No other Star Trek series would dare have a regular and beloved character murdered!!
    DS9 also offers more realism in the relationships between the characters – they didn’t always get along, and the relationships weren’t always reset at the end of the episodes.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you liked the blog. I’d question the line about DS9 having the monopoly on killing off lead characters. I offer as evidence, tasha Yar in the TNG first series episode, Skin Of Evil….

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